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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Noises Off
Old Vic Theatre  Winter 2011-2012; Novello Theatre Spring-Summer 2012

One of the most perfect of modern stage farces, Michael Frayn's Noises Off comes as close as possible to guaranteeing almost uninterrupted laughter from start to finish, so I would have to strain to find any reason not to recommend this revival enthusiastically. 

The essence of farce is characters seriously trying to do something that becomes more and more ridiculous as they become more and more committed to it. That goal can be keeping a secret (as in most Ray Cooney farces), getting someone into bed (as in the French genre), killing someone (as in the current Ladykillers) or, as in this case, putting on a play. 

Frayn's characters are the actors, director and backstage crew rehearsing and performing a typical English farce involving various people choosing what is supposed to be an empty house for their various assignations and illicit purposes. So what we get is a farce about a farce, and even better than that.

If the genre has any inherent weakness (aside from the fact that some poor souls just don't get it), it is the difficulty of sustaining the silliness through the length of a play, and Frayn has solved that by giving us what are essentially three separate farces about a farce.

Act One shows the shambolic dress rehearsal, with the comedy of the play they're putting on compounded by the constant problems with props, cues, motivations and the general dimness of all concerned.

Act Two is set backstage midway through the run, when company romances have begun to sour and the play they're putting on is less important than their personal problems. And Act Three is back onstage at the end of a long tour, when everything starts falling apart and nobody really gives a damn. 

Frayn's script is so tightly constructed that there really isn't much room for directorial creativity, and if director Lindsay Posner added much in the way of new business or characterisations, I didn't notice. 

Posner's admirable direction consisted largely of drilling his cast to the precise timing and choreographed movement that make Frayn's many visual gags seem to happen effortlessly and inevitably and then pretty much getting out of the play's way.

Celia Imrie is predictably hilarious as both the dippy housekeeper in the inner play and the dippy actress playing her, while Robert Glenister actually manages to generate some sympathy for the harried director, and the rest of the cast are all first-rate as well. 

This production of Noises Off may lose a little steam in the last act, or maybe it's just that we're exhausted from all the laughing we've been doing up to then. But through at least three-quarters of its length this remains the standard by which all other stage comedies must be measured and which very few can even approach.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -   Noises Off - Old Vic 2011


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